'Just a minute . . . let me think' or 'I feel my brain is going to burst'

Somerset Thinking Skills in Dalton Middle School Terri Webb (Year 5 Co-Ordinator, Dalton Middle School) and David Bowdier (Area Educational Psychologist)

The Somerset Thinking Skills (STS) course devised by Blagg et al (1988) is being evaluated in Dalton Middle School, Dusseldorf, and West Germany, under the aegis of the National Oracy Project (Dyke 1989). It is being run as part of the curriculum in two mainstream classes of mixed ability children. One novel feature of the Dalton course is that, for the first time the STS materials are being used with 9 10 year old children. STS has been part of the curriculum since January 1989, and it is now being taught in years 5 and 6.

What is STS?

The STS course consists of a series of modules designed to teach discuss and generalise specific concepts skills and strategies involved in problem solving. The two modules currently being used at Dalton School are Module 1 Foundations for Problem Solving (Year 5), and Module 2 Analys-ing and Synthesising (Year 6). There are three types of activities in the course viz stimulus, artificial and naturalistic.
Stimulus activities are complex and pose particular kinds of problems which require particular styles of strategic thinking. They offer opportunities to explore connections between many different kinds of experience which may otherwise remain unrelated They are open n-ended activities which encourage imaginative and divergent interpretations, providing these can be justified by reference to the information pro-vided This type of activity is designed to develop confidence in small group and class discussion work promote oracy skills and encourage collab-orative working.
However, artificial activities are designed to teach and offer practice in particular cognitive resources, such as concepts, vocabulary, skills and conventions. Many of these tasks are designed for independent, paired and group work. Some of the tasks require a very specific approach to find one particular solution, whilst other tasks are more open-ended with many alternative solutions. The use of tasks in varying modes enables the teacher to explore the extent to which skills learnt in one context are spon-taneously transferred to another.
Naturalistic activities tend to be more open-ended and relate problem solving situations to real life experiences. This enables the teacher to observe the transferring of skills and strategies between the different types of tasks. As the teacher mediates he or she can assess how far the pupils are able to select and apply appropriate strategies and skills:
Recent curriculum. developments, such as TVEI, LAPP, GCSE and the National Curriculum stress the need for pupils to become more efficient with regard to problem solving processes. The emphasis is now more than ever on developing pupils' ability to organise their own learning. Cross curricular themes are replacing subject teaching, such as Design and Technology; interactive teaching styles are being developed in order to encourage pupils to learn more actively, so needing to think, question and develop more autonomous learning. It is not enough, how ever, to assume that with new curriculum innovations pupils will 'learn to learn'. Blagg et al (1988) indicate that there is much evidence to show that this just does not happen. Children need to be trained in thinking skills, thereby improving their ability to learn and to become flexible, strategic thinkers: Children need to be prepared to handle unfamiliar problems and learning tasks independently. In order to do this they need to transfer and apply (generalise) skills, strategies and procedures learnt in particular situations to new con-texts. If they can understand the problem solving processes involved in some tasks, then, may be, they will be able to select and use these processes in similar tasks.
Children's approaches to learning are closely related to their attitudes, beliefs and motivation. Many children, not just those with learning diffi-culties, often omit an important stage in organising their learning: the planning stage. Children need to be, specifically, taught to plan. Previous learning experiences also have a bearing on a child's approach to learning tasks. A child who has been constantly criticised or who has experi-enced continual failure may have developed a poor self-concept and may never expect success. Similarly, a child who has never been encouraged to work independently may acquire a 'learned helplessness', and the only strategy for learning used is to depend on the teacher for help. Over-simplification of learning tasks can lead to chil-dren being insufficiently challenged and encourage low expectations by the teacher. The children then 'live down' to this expectation (Rosenthal & Jacobson 1968). Another attribute of the under-achieving child is impulsiveness. Learning behav-iours are performed on a guesswork basis, with insufficient time and thought being given to defin-ing the task and gathering and organising information. STS enables the teacher as mediator to encourage the pupil to reflect before selecting a particular strategy. Most children in fact use preferred styles of working irrespective of the problem or context.
The rationale behind STS is a. that of helping the pupil to realise that problem solving requires the selection and application of different strategies and b. that these skills can be learned. Confidence leads to competence. This is, of course, of particu-lar benefit to the less confident child who has adopted the role of someone less able, rather than risk the possibility of failure.
STS offers a wide range of activities which serve as a springboard for each lesson. The pupils are constantly required to recognise and define different types of tasks and generate, monitor and evaluate different methods of working. This Wide variation enables the teacher to develop and assess the transfer of skills and strategies across the curriculum. Some of the STS tasks are open ended and others require more specific answers. Both approaches however require the children to justify their interpretations and to evaluate and com-municate clearly their solutions and methods of working.
The tasks contain elements of ambiguity to foster various skills/behaviours. It helps: a. pupils to think for themselves in defining the tasks; b. encourage many justifiable interpretations -prompting much debate and discussion on; c. given the range of possible interpretations to encourage close attention to detail; d. to reduce impulsivity by communicating to pupils that n one of the tasks are straightforward and they have to be thought through; e. as the teacher is not looking for set answers, the more reticent child to contribute to class discussion f pupils to be aware of the need for precision and accuracy in, many everyday communications to avoid confusion and uninten-tional ambiguity; g. pupils to search for implicit and explicit clues, as well as analysing the obvious details. (This is regarded as an important aspect of successful academic performance).
The belief is that it is not enough merely to expose pupils to different problem solving situ-ations as this alone will not allow the transfer of skills to fresh contexts. The crux of the STS approach is that of the teacher as mediator. Through effective mediation the pupils will be able to transfer learnt skills kills to other subject areas and to every day life.

How can you use what seems such an individually orientated course within a mainstream class of up to 30 children?

After experimenting with different classroom lay-outs, the most manageable structure was found to be with the tables and hairs arranged in a horseshoe shape as this maximises eye contact. The class agreed on this arrangement. Within the horseshoe shape the class were able to organise themselves for independent, paired and small group working as well as coming together for whole class discussion. However, before starting the discussion, the children accepted that certain rules must be established in order to avoid chaos. Together the following rules were agreed:

a. only one person speaks at a time.
b. everyone listens whilst one person is speaking
c. all contributions are valued.
d. people must speaks clearly.
e. people can challenge statements but not the person.
f. if people are called on to contribute but need more thinking time, then the slogan 'just a minute let me think should be adopted.
g. people must try to avoid hands up to discour-age impulsivity.
h. people are invited to speak or wait for a gap.
i. when working in small all groups one person should be elected as scribe and one as spokesperson.
j. groups should be mixed.
These rules hopefully allowed language to proceed and operate in a way which sustained the dis-cussion. The children understood that these rules were a tool to discussion and not an end in themselves.
The introduction of the lesson was very import-ant for establishing interest in the key concept to be taught. The introduction normally drew on children's own experiences and most children could be encouraged to contribute. It was vital either at the end of the introduction or when the task has been introduced that the teacher asked the children if they could see the connection. After a few weeks the class were able to anticipate what the lesson was going to be about.
I Although the children were grouped for work each child was given a task sheet and asked to scan it for the main features. At this is stage some started discussing and others perused in silence. After a couple of minutes each child was expected to make a contribution as to what they thought the task was all about. The more reserved child would be asked to contribute first, before the more obvious ideas had been noted by the other children.
At the beginning of the course, the class were quite happy to listen to each individual's contribution, and when a particularly interesting point was raised it would be opened for discussion. Once the class became more confident about talking, they changed the rules. Individual comments were immediately challenged and the contributor very quickly forced to justify his thinking. This stage of the lesson was very stimulating as so many ideas were being thrown around. As one girl commented: 'I really like STS; it makes me feel like a politician; and I like the wonderful feeling of everyone listening to you; but some-times, I have so many ideas to think about I feel my brain is going to burst because it gets so hot'.
The next stage of the lesson was for individual or group work. The class was then tasked with a particular question or question, and given, bout ten minutes for this activity. During this time the role of the teacher was to mediate, making sure each child understood the intention of the task and then mediating as little as possible but as much as necessary. The children in general need much more help with the abstract tasks than they do with the naturalistic or stimulus tasks.
Each group had a scribe and spokesperson, Who reported back on their hypotheses. The class commented on their findings arid together sum-marised what had been learned. The next lesson may often start off with a continuation of this stage and develop from their findings. Thus another link lesson can be formed. This final stage of the lesson is vital for the, class to understand that the skills and resources which they have learned can be directly transferred to other cur-riculum areas and real life.
This academic year the class in year 6 was not the tutor class, and therefore the STS teacher was only with the class once a week. This caused concern at first. It was felt that not being able to finish the summary would affect them and they would be unable to remember the key points. It was found, however, that the contrary was true for they have been able to revise very efficiently and pick up on the points with no difficulty. Yet another example of having higher expectations of children! This has been facilitated by HOD English, who, working with them during the week for English and Art, continued the summary and developed the transfer, and thus bridged the work into other areas (Hickling 1990).
The bridging of thinking skills was imperative. An example of the process was in 'planning' which involves children simplifying complex tasks into manageable chunks. They can then reassem-ble the tasks and develop meaningful solutions to the problems posed. The transfer was primarily pursued in English, Art, Science and Technology, where the children were encouraged to transfer the skills into the subject areas. This enabled the children to possess, as part of their intellectual armoury, a critical awareness of their own planning skills and to use them in a dynamic and appropriate way.

How can the cognitive resources and skills that the children have been learning in STS lessons be measured; especially in relation to their transfer to other areas of the curriculum and to real life situations?

This question of transfer is fundamental to the issue of all successful teaching and particularly to
STS. It was measured in six ways.
Firstly, by the teacher within the class. As it is vital that the pupils understand the skills and strategies they have learnt and be able to apply them to STS tasks which are becoming progressiv-ely more complex, the pupils need to be encour-aged to break down the tasks into manageable steps. This is necessary in order for them to see the reliance of previous activities the teacher can help them to make spontaneous comparisons by asking questions such as,
What is similar in this activity to previous ones?'
'What is different?'
'What skills have you previously learned that could help you with this task? (Blagg 1988)
A combination of these questions, and looking back at previous activities will usually help a child to make the connection. As revision and re-capping occur frequently, all the class are able to comment on at least one aspect of what has been learnt.

Secondly, by the teacher in other lessons. The children must be aware of other areas of the curriculum where they will need to be efficient, flexible thinkers. Examples Of such 'transfer' were as follows:
One child requested an opportunity to reorganise the classroom and drew a plan, which was then 'tried out'.
After a Maths test a boy commented, 'I worked out a strategy for doing that test, I did all the ones I could do first, then went back and thought more about the more difficult ones.'

Thirdly, by the teacher in general sessions/ situations, 'What thinking skills do we use in real life?' Examples of their replies are given below,
Explaining - 'It's important to make sure every-one understands what they have to do. We need to explain where to go and give directions when someone asks.'
Classifying - 'You need to classify evidence
e.g. put all the people wearing tartan trousers together, then you can eliminate the rest. In Science we have to classify groups too and sets in Maths.'
Analysing and Synthesising - 'We need to pull things apart so we can put them back together, like when we did that lesson on the attack; a detective would need to do that too.'
Evaluating - 'You evaluate all the evidence and put it together to make a hypothesis. In this hypothesis you fit it all together in your mind which is Synthesising You create a cartoon in your head and see who actually did it, that's mentally visualising, so you can put all the evidence together and see clearly in your own way.'
Comparing - 'You need to compare and check to see if you are right. If you were looking into an incident you would have to compare the statements, put them together and create a scene so you can find out what people are lying and who did the crime.'
Recognising implicit cues 'Like when you scan a picture; then you find out info4rmation isn't in the information box, but it doesn't say it.'
Explicit instruction - 'An act of mental and physical ability.'
Eliminating - 'It's like a detective when he has five suspects. He can eliminate them by getting descriptions of them and compare it against each of them. If they don't fit he eliminates them.'
'You can get eliminated in a race if you don't win.'
'We play a game called elimination in the playground. You have to catch a ball with one hand and if you drop it you eliminate a part of 'your body'
Selecting Relevant Information 'When you look at a lot of information you must select what you need.'
Summarising - 'When you get all the infor-mation, and round it' up like at the end of the news.'
Fourthly, from other teachers' observations e.g. in Design and Technology - the teacher made the following comments,
'I find it difficult to comment on the perform-ance of the group during the Autumn Term. There was little to differentiate the group from the other two at that time. However, it became clear in the Spring term 'that they were more voluble, eager to progress, quick to answer, pre-pared to discuss problems, and, without prompting, difficulties were overcome by seeking and accepting advice from peers. There was great co-operation when working; advice and help were offered with very few derogatory remarks being made about each Other's work."

Fifthly, by an external independent observer.
The children were asked various questions by an
independent observer. He did not work in school
and was a stranger to the class. The questions
and answers.
What is Thinking Skills?
- 'It's like detective work."
- 'You've got to think more."
- 'Looking for clues.'
- 'Something you have to look for to evidence.'

Do you enjoy Thinking Skills lessons?
- 'Yes, I like finding out new things.'
- 'I like using each others ideas.'
- 'You find out things.'
- 'I like the puzzles; it gets your brain working."
- 'It makes us slow down and think so we don't make so many mistakes.'
- 'We have to think, argue, discuss, use the evidence and give reasons."
- 'I think TS is brilliant, I told my dad all about it. I told him all these words we use and what they mean, he was really impressed. I think it's really good the way we share our ideas and have to listen and sometimes bear with them even If we don't really agree."
- 'It's like politics, I want to be a politician when I'm older and this is really useful.'
- 'I really like TS; I don't mind talking out now; no one laughs at me.'
- 'I really feel I'm using my brain in TS, and I never get bored like in some lessons.'
What is Somerset Thinking Skills about?
- 'Learning to think more positively."
- 'Using our seven senses, well six then, to under-
- stand things.''
'Thinking helps to solve a problem.' .
- 'You use more senses in STS than in other lessons."
Finally, by objective criteria.' Prior to the com-mencement of the course, assessment was completed on the children using the British Ability
Scales: Verbal Fluency Test, the Bristol Social Adjustment Guide and an attitude questionnaire.' The children were then reassessed at the close of the academic year. Unfortunately turbulence claimed most of the group and only nine remained from the original sample.' The results indicated that all of the children gained markedly in verbal fluency on the six measures employed.' In social adjustment the gains were mainly in a.' facing new learning tasks - where nearly half the children were now regarded as 'liking the challenge of something difficult' previously none); b.' possess-ing better strategies for looking after their belong-ings (all the children as opposed to six previously); c. asking teacher's help - eight children 'seek help only when necessary' as opposed to three previously; d. answering questions - five children as opposed to one child were now 'always ready to answer', and e. ways with other children -seven children were regarded as 'generally kind and helpful to other children' in the work situation.'

How does STS fit into the National Curriculum?
Given the introduction of the National Curricu-lum (NC) into SCEA schools it is necessary for its continuance that Somerset Thinking Skills can meet some of the NC requirements. On a general level, the fit is an easy one, the DES publications have emphasised the importance of promoting understanding alongside the acquisition of knowledge.' The pupils will be assessed at various stages:
7, 11, 14 and 16, not only on facts and infor-mation but also on a wide range of conceptual linguistic and procedural knowledge.' Pupils will need to demonstrate their ability to analyse, hypo-thesise and synthesise as a matter of course.' They will need to study a wide range of evidence, comprehend the nature of the information, and then extract the relevant data from it.' Alongside this the pupils will need to be aware of implicit and explicit clues, to notice gaps and inconsistencies in information and to detect bias.' Importantly they will also require a fluency in basic techniques of recording and clarifying data (see later). However, on the specific level the question needs to be raised: does STS help the child to succeed on the particular attainment targets of the NC?
Blagg et al (1989) have addressed this issue and have indicated areas where there is correspon-dence and where the pursuit of developing thought processes complements the targets of the National Curriculum.' An example of this is given in the following table.'

Recording Information


Attainment Target


Pupils should: 'Select appropriate methods of recording data'



'. . . make a detailed plan of the work; work methodically; checking information for completeness, consider whether the results are of the right order'


Organise in a logical way 'non-chronological writing'(description, explanation. . . )



The Somerset Thinking Skills course offers teachers the opportunity to enable pupils to become flexible, less impulsive and more strategic thinkers. It has been shown in this small scale research that it promotes oracy skills and increases the self esteem of the children involved.' Its use as a mainstream, cross-curricula approach, which fulfils the aims of the National Curriculum, must ensure continued and developing utilisation within British schools, even if it makes children's brains so 'hot that they burst'.

Blagg N, Ballinger M, Gardner R, Petty M, & Williams G, (1988) 'Somerset Thinking Skills Course' - Nigel Blagg Associates, 39 Staplegrove Road, Taunton, Somerset
Blagg N, Ballinger M, Gardner R, (1989) 'Thinking Skills and Attainment Targets in the National Curriculum' - Private Communication.'
Dyke S (1990) 'Talkback': The Journal of National Oracy Project in Service Children's Schools (North West Europe) January.
Hickling A.' (1990) 'Thinking Skills: Bridging into English and Art' - SCEA Journal No 29.'
Rosenthal R and Jacobson L F (1968) 'Pygmalion in the Classroom'- Holt, Reinhart and Winstonkills
Article taken from SCEA Bulletin No: 29 Autumn 1990


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